The Latin Quarter
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The Latin Quarter

The Opening Act of the Cold War

Ideologies of the 20th Century

Following the October communist revolution led by Vladimir Lenin in Petrograd (later named Leningrad in honour of the Russian leader, originally and currently named St. Petersburg) in 1917 and the bitter civil war in the years following, Russia emerged as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1921. The first of many socialist states to appear on the world stage, the USSR quickly manifested its policy and beliefs onto the globe, the expansion of communism and hatred of “imperialistic” capitalism at its core. The death of Lenin in 1924 and Joseph Stalin’s ascension to power that same year then propelled the ideology of the USSR further, Stalinism building a cult of personality around its eponymous leader and inspiring an age of terror to all that held dissent against him¹. The periodic purges of high political and military figures, alongside the oppressive strategies of Stalin in controlling his people created a state feared by the west, in particular the USA & UK, who stood to lose their power over the world in a global communist takeover.

The staunchly capitalist states of the United Kingdom and United States of America stood at the other side of the political spectrum, deemed imperialistic (and rightly so) by the USSR. Britain, over the past century, had consolidated an empire spanning the entire globe, controlling significant parts of the continents of Africa and Asia. The expansion of communism from a monolithic Russian communist power would see Britain lose its empire, fears of a Marxist revolution in the colonies sparking distrust of the USSR and a desire to stop its expansion at all costs. The USA had no such worries about the USSR, having largely chosen an isolationist foreign policy for the opening of the 20th century, but was still concerned with the rise of a communist USSR. The threat of the USSR towards the USA was both ideological and economic, denunciation of the west as imperialistic and an unwillingness to trade the core aversions of the Americans to the newly formed USSR.

Distrust between the two sides was also a core component of what would become the Cold War, Russia’s surrender in the First World War with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917 and their nonaggression pact with the Nazis before the Second World War creating a deep chasm of uncertainty in east-west relations. The west, however, was also not entirely blameless in this war of ideologies and trust. During the Russian Civil War, the USA had provided aid and support to the anti-communists following Lenin’s revolution. The residual mistrust from having been proxy enemies in a war fought on Russian soil would play a not insignificant role in the USSR’s attitude towards the USA and the west in the decades to come.

¹It must be noted that the purges were begun by Lenin, but the integration of the cult of personality into the tools of terror remained a Stalinist concept.

Cracks in the Political Landscape

From 1943 to the end of the Second World War with the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, a political alliance was formed and then snapped into half, creating the east and west that would remain for the larger part of the 20th century. Initial friendship and co-operation over the war effort and planning for the future would give way to animosity caused by Soviet Expansionism, creating an era of distrust that would cloud international relations between east and west for decades.

The Tehran Conference

In December of 1943, the three world leaders met in Tehran to discuss the political allocations of war, and more importantly, the future of Europe. With the growing likelihood of an Allied victory against the Axis powers, Churchill (UK), Roosevelt (USA) and Stalin (USSR) wished to tighten their grasp on victory through co-operation and strategy. It was decided that a second front would be opened to alleviate pressure upon Russia’s fighting forces, at the time the only military engaged against the army of the Third Reich. Even though a location for the creation of a new arena of war was not decided, Churchill wanting an opening in the Balkans, and Stalin & Roosevelt requesting a location on the French coast to truly split Nazi Germany’s forces, co-operation served to form a more closely tied Allied force that would then win the Second World War. Decisions made at the Tehran Conference also then applied not only to the European conflict, but also to the Asian arena, the USSR pledging support to the USA in their battles against Japan, in the name of friendship between east and west, but also serving as long-overdue vengeance for the Russian army and navy loss in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905.

In addition, the Tehran Conference not only served as a strategy co-ordination effort of the Allies, but also a pool of opinion on the future of Europe after a victory. There it was decided that Europe would be generally split into two spheres of influence, the USA and UK holding influence, dominion and power in western Europe (the “West”), and the USSR holding control over Eastern Europe. Despite this, both western leaders pushed for a policy of self-determination, in an attempt to avoid overt communist expansion, which Stalin preliminarily agreed to. However, the co-operation, while in its short stage of almost complete success, was not without fault, manifesting cracks in the alliance in the subject of reparations. The leaders agreed that lands annexed by Germany would be returned, and to a general weakening of the German state, but did not reach a consensus regarding the extent of weakening and reparation. Stalin, suffering most deeply from the military actions of Germany, pushed for much harsher reparation strategy than Roosevelt and Churchill, who remained wary in lieu of the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences, fearing a new Germany hostile to foreign interests and desiring revenge for the Second World War (as the Treaty of Versailles had done for the First World War). The Tehran Conference, while signalling a hope for international co-operation amongst massively differing ideologies and policies, was not without its problems, already showing cracks in the weakening of Germany.

The Percentages Agreement

Despite the agreements on self-determination for Europe reached by the three states during the Tehran Conference, western and eastern desires for influence remained, and are shown most clearly in the outcome of the 4th Moscow Conference during 1944 between Churchill and Stalin. An underhand agreement was semi-informally created, allocating proportion of control of the countries annexed at the time by Nazi Germany. They read as follows:

The willingness of the USSR to co-operate and give leeway on their expansionist strategy, as well as Britain’s openness to giving up influence in areas where their empire had previously asserted control marks the ambivalence with which international relations was still held. After the Second World War, territorial dispute over communist dominance would be decided by war without exception, this agreement in 1944 depicting the last interaction with which genuine agreement between east and west was reached with satisfactory result on both sides.

The Yalta Conference

A second meeting of all three leaders that had been present at Tehran took place in Yalta in February of 1945. The Second World War was truly now in its death throes, with both eastern and western Allied forces advancing on Berlin, and as such, the leaders focussed on the world and their place within it after conflict ended. In order to prevent future conflict, the powers decided that a new United Nations (UN) was to be created, modelled in a similar manner to the League of Nations following the First World War, but with actual military and economic power to be used to sanction unruly states. Given the growing tensions between the two sides over territorial dispute and sheer strength of military presence in Europe at the time, the leaders were keen to create an authority that would pass judgement on international political affairs.

That was not to say, however, that disagreement was not already in the air over land rights following the war. The desire to create a “buffer zone” on Stalin’s behalf with the countries around it to protect it from Germany, and by extension, the remainder of western Europe, would create an issue when it came to the new borders for Poland following its reclaiming by Allied forces. In order to both strengthen his own country, and to weaken Germany, Stalin proposed a ‘border shuffle’, shifting Poland’s eastern and western borders further westward, encroaching on Germany’s original size, to allow the USSR a larger internal buffer zone. The other two countries remained wary, fearful of an ulterior motive of Soviet Expansionism, and the issue would remain unresolved until the conference at Potsdam later that year. That was not the end of issues regarding Poland, however, which was at the time directly under the control of occupying USSR soldiers, who had installed a communist government despite the leaders’ calls for self-determination. This betrayal of principle on Stalin’s part served to increase tensions between east & west, acting as the first move of true defiance and unwillingness to adhere to decisions previously made. The clearly expansionist policy of the USSR had been shown, and the west were vindicated in the fears of a growing eastern power.

The Potsdam Conference

The final meeting of three leaders from east and west for some years to come would occur later in 1945, between July and August during the Potsdam Conference. Roosevelt had been ousted from power and replaced by a new president, Harry Truman, somewhat upsetting whatever trace of friendly rapport the three leaders had built over the previous conferences. The obtaining of nuclear power by the USA under Truman also served as a point of contention, the president constantly reminding Stalin of the power he now held, having successfully tested the bomb in New Mexico, and then detonated in Japan in early August. This demonstration of power, placed in Japan for maximum effect on the geographically close Russia, was to serve to intimidate the USSR, regarded as technologically impaired, and to put an end to their aggressive exploits in Europe in the name of Soviet Expansionism. The appointment of a new nuclear order with the USA at its head threatened the power of the USSR, the ability of the USA to annihilate any Russian force at the dropping of a singular atomic bomb creating a new scramble to maintain power and influence. To this end, Stalin immediately ordered his engineers to begin work on a nuclear bomb, in hopes of challenging American dominance in military strength.

Besides new technological threats, there were also agreements reached at the Potsdam Conference. It was decided that Germany would be partitioned, with Britain, France, the USA and the USSR controlling zones of Germany. Moreover, the capital city of Berlin was also to be split into these four sectors, despite being buried deep within USSR territory. Despite the decisions made at the consensus of the group, Stalin was not pleased with the outcome, with the USSR receiving the poorer sectors of Berlin, and forced to trade with the British and American sectors for industrial supplies in return for coal and agricultural produce. In addition, Stalin was forced by the other leaders to promise that he would end the occupation of lands that the Soviet army had moved through on their liberation of Europe, disrupting his plan to retain military presence in order to expand his buffer zone and the influence of communist Russia.²

However, Stalin did not entirely come away from Potsdam empty-handed. The three leaders agreed on a border shuffle for Poland, increasing the USSR’s territory and decreasing Germany’s, albeit to a smaller extent than Stalin had originally desired, allowing him to build a buffer zone. Another victory for Stalin came in the determination of land rights in Asia done at the Potsdam Conference, with the decision made to partition Korea into a communist north led by Moscow-trained dictator Kim il-sung, and a capitalist American-backed south under the equally dictatorial leader Syngman Rhee.

²Note that while he promised to end occupations, he clearly did not in certain cases, including Hungary, or simply installed communist governments through terror before his military forces formally departed the country, in the case of Bulgaria, in violation of the Percentages Agreement.



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